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1952 Chili Cookoff [Uvalde, TX] ‘Arama Days’

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Among other things that stand out at the Dallas State Fair in 1952 was the first appearance of Big Tex. It was an oversized statue that was originally a giant Santa Clause that was repurposed for the fair itself.

state fair santa clause of 1952 big texas

“It stood atop a department store in the city of Kerns until it was retired. That year in October, they hosted something else that stood-out that included the very first Chili cookoff competition.

Chili Cooking World Championship of 1952 (Arama Days)

This cookoff was dubbed the Chili Cooking World Championship of 1952. This was something new and groundbreaking for spectators who witnessed the event. It was also dedicated to Chili and would set the wheels turning for what most people would know as a modern style chili cookoff for decades after that. Call it a template of sorts, as this was unlike other competitions which prohibited women; as usual, BBQs did.

The Book

It was a concept that was introduced more as a marketing plot than anything else. The person responsible for organizing the event was an ex-newspaper journalist from Dallas named Joe E. Cooper. He was hot to draw attention to his new book.

“With or Without Beans: An Informal Biography of Chili? which is essentially now the Chili Bible of CASI? But what the competition did, was draw-out 55 contestants who all wanted to show off? their chilli skills!”

The cookoff was a real success and by the time the winners were announced, Joe Cooper sat beside himself. Not that there wasn’t any interest in chili cooks strutting their stuff, not at all. Cooper had yet to see any interest in his book the entire time the competition waged-on! Sadly, he died a couple of months later, never getting to see his book emerge later into a best seller! However, when it came to the chili competition itself, two winners came out shining.

Winner’s and Winning Chili Recipes

You might never have expected the first prize winner to be a woman, but more ironically her recipe wasn’t original! Mrs F. G. Ventura from Dallas was crowned the first prize winner.

“After this, she held onto that reigning title for a total of 15 years! Not until the very first Terlingua Chili Cookoff in 1967, was her title officially lost. Yet her winning recipe was in fact, a slight variation of the chilli recipe in the Gebhardt cookbook. By now if you?re a chilli fan and historian, William Gebhardt was the inventor of chilli powder!”

He perfected the spices used in this formula and originally called his mixture Tampico Dust. By 1960, his spice empire was bought-out by Beatrice Foods and included his iconic 24-page pamphlet.

“This included menu suggestions featuring many of his patented products for the Gebhardt Mexican Food Company spices. Mrs Ventura used a near-exact copy of his recipe to win the 1952 chilli cookoff competition.”

You can find the exact recipe she used here.

F.G. Ventura's First Place ChiliMrs F. G. Ventura was perhaps the last winner in over one-hundred years of chili cooking. After her dethroning in 1967, chili competitions became a male-dominated arena with only 1/3 of the participants being women. Before that, chili was a dish that was often cooked exclusively by women and eaten mostly by men. The chili cookoff she entered in 1962 specified no beans, so she used ground beef just like the original Gebhardt recipe called for.

The second winner was, to everyone’s surprise, a man. Mr Julian Capers Jr. took everyone by surprise with an unorthodox recipe. He left large chunks of onion and garlic in the chili giving it plenty of ‘front’ bite. The back bite was thrilling enough with the Gebhardt chili powder and 4 large dried Mexican chili peppers. After the Mexican peppers were soft enough from cooking, he diced them and added the water and pepper mix.

Julian would have been frowned upon by traditional chili cooks these days since fresh ingredients shouldn’t be seen.

“The onion and garlic are supposed to be diced so they disappear into the chili mix. But then again, this was one of the first competitions that had very relaxed rules. We can imagine the folks at CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) scoffing at the idea. Although, this was the first event where the bible of chili premiered!”

 

And though Mr Capers’ recipe was just as simple as Mrs Ventura’s, they both had their methods of ‘Dumping’. This is where many chili chefs time their chili ingredients and spices so they don’t lose impact or flavor while cooking. A crucial part of any serious chili cook, and one that is very selective in the grand championship circuits. Dumping is not the only part of the process as is the cooking time overall.

Both of these winning recipes took about 4 hours to prepare each of them. It should be noted that Mrs Ventura’s was roughly an hour earlier. This was despite both of them using flour to thicken-up their final chilli mix. We might even suppose that this was due to her adding shortening rather than suet (a hard beef fat). But the only way is to recreate these two recipes side by side. You might see how they both render-down when the ground beef is cooked.

Conclusion

Interestingly enough, by the time those founding members of what would soon become CASI were divided on this chilli event! Some felt that Cooper, who wrote the book on Chili; would have been accepted into CASI openly. While others felt that Mrs Ventura had no place or mention in their exclusive men’s club. These good old boys never even wanted to invite Mrs Ventura to their first competition that began in 1967.

For a very close look at how CASI began in Terlingua, our next story will cover their rise to fame. You’ll also get to learn how they weren’t the only ones to invade the unknown ghost town called Terlingua. It’s an insight that may have been sparked by Joe E. Cooper, who wrote a book that inspired it all. Be sure to read about the Terlingua’s First Chili Cookoff in 1967.

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